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Some New York City students who’ve missed too many remote classes because of faulty devices and unreliable internet are being threatened with having child services notified, parents and advocates told the Daily News.
At least two parents say their children are being unfairly targeted for virtual absences stemming from circumstances outside their control, including malfunctioning city-issued iPads and spotty internet in city homeless shelters.
South Bronx mom Regina Alston’s two Education Department iPads have been on the fritz with a repair request pending for months, forcing her two elementary school kids to share a single laptop and miss classes when the siblings' schedules overlap.
But she said that even after she alerted officials at Grant Ave. Elementary school about the issue, an administrator this week warned Alston’s 9-year-old daughter the school would have to alert child services if her virtual absences continued, the furious mother said.
“I’m angry,” Alston fumed. “I think the DOE is trying to put the fault on the parents, but it’s not. This whole remote learning is an epic failure.”
Alston was particularly incensed that the school administrator raised the issue with her daughter instead of her.
“Why would you threaten a 9-year-old with child services?" Alston fumed. “Child services should never even be a conversation to have with a 9-year-old.”
Advocates have been railing against the involvement of child welfare agencies in cases of remote truancy since city schools shuttered last spring. As far back as April, some families were even contacted by child welfare workers about remote absences before they’d even received one of the iPads city officials promised to any student without a device.
Education Department officials say they’ve scrambled to clarify to schools that they cannot report suspected “educational neglect” to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services without first confirming that the virtual absences aren’t related to tech shortages.
“School and district staff exhaust all options to contact families and they are keenly aware of the realities of remote and blended learning,” said Education Department spokesman Nathaniel Styer. “It is stressed repeatedly that access to technology should not be the sole reason to make a report to ACS, and any indication that this guidance is not being followed is concerning and will be taken seriously."
Officials say reports of educational neglect are down significantly overall this school year — with 34 reports filed this September, compared to roughly 200 in the same month in 2019 and 2018.
But parents and advocates say even when a report isn’t filed, the threat of child welfare involvement alone can be traumatizing for already overwhelmed parents and kids — especially in low-income communities of color more likely to have had contact with the child welfare system.
“The last thing I want is my daughter having nightmares being scared someone is going to remove her from her home,” said Alston. “She didn’t want to even go into school on Thursday.”
Other parents who say they’re being unfairly scrutinized for remote truancy say their tech woes are entirely in the city’s power to fix.
Manhattan mom Katlyn Winegardner lives in a homeless shelter without WiFi or strong enough cell service to reliably get online through the T-Mobile data plan on her two young kids’ iPads. As a result, the kids have struggled to log in for nearly a month, Winegardner said.
The mom kept in constant contact with the school about her kids' tech barriers, so she was shocked to get a call last week from a DOE attendance official asking her to explain her kids' absences.
“The officer was saying why haven’t I taken my daughter to school or had my daughter in class since Sept. 16,” Winegardner said. “I said, who contacted you? Where did she get the memo to reach out to me and say my children hadn’t been in school? If it came from the school, they were very well aware what the situation was.”
Winegardner said the call left her terrified that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services would open an investigation into her kids' remote no-shows.
“I’m scared. I woke up overwhelmed. I cried a little bit today,” Winegardner, 30, told the Daily News.
Winegardner’s situation comes after the The News reported last week that families in numerous shelters across the city are struggling to connect their kids to remote classes under the cellular data plan set up by the city.
“Through no fault of her own and through the city’s fault in not assuring all kids are able to connect, this parent is now facing involvement from ACS because her kids were unable to attend school,” said Susan Horwitz, the supervising attorney for the Education Law Project at the Legal Aid Society.
Education Department officials say there are a number of steps schools must follow before alerting ACS when a child is racking up excessive remote absences. Teachers and school staff are first supposed to reach out and offer technical support, and talk to family and friends about what’s causing the absences.
If that doesn’t work, the case can be referred to a DOE attendance teacher or community organizations for further investigation, officials said.
Both mothers said the alarming attendance phone calls add one more worry on top of the already overwhelming task of managing remote learning with limited means.
Alston had to turn to her adult son for child care. He volunteered to work a night shift so he could stay home with the kids during the day — but that means he’s asleep most of the school day, leaving the kids with little direct academic support.
Winegardner, meanwhile, has been sick with worry over how much academic ground her young daughter will lose because of the family’s living situation.
“She’s already at a disadvantage, with us being at the shelter," Winegardner said. "She’s going to fall behind.”
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